Next came Charybdis, who swallows the sea in a whirlpool, then spits it up again. Avoiding this we skirted the cliff where Scylla exacts her toll. Each of her six slavering maws grabbed a sailor and wolfed him down. -Homer, The Odyssey
When it comes to discussion on matters that count, naval authors must navigate with care and precision through treacherous waters. On one side lies the moral whirlpool of Charybdis, threatening to drown her victims with silent convictions, unspoken dissent, and abandoned integrity for the sake of getting along. On the other lies Scylla, with her snakehead charges of sedition, libel, contempt, and venomous character assassination, guided by institutional retribution, ready to devour offenders in reprisal for disagreeable words. It is a journey for only the hardiest souls, for one need not pass without choosing to do so. But for some the destination is too compelling, for the port known as "truth" lies on the other side.
The Teeth of Scylla
Our forefathers sought to safeguard truth through freedom of speech. Ideas were to stand on their own merits, tested and tried in the crucible of debate, protected against censorship and the decree of tyrants. The First Amendment of the Constitution meant to guarantee freedom of speech as a fundamental right of its citizens.
Yet, freedom of speech was one of the first ideals to come under assault. just seven years after the Constitution's passage, the Sedition Act of 1798 made it a crime for U.S. citizens to "print, utter, or publish . . . any false, scandalous, and malicious writing" about the government. Passed as a defensive measure against defamation and rebellion, the act was instead used by Federalists as an instrument against political dissent, to jail the likes of newspaper editors, a U.S. congressman, and an ill-fated drunk guilty of an unflattering comment about the President.1
The Sedition Act of 1798 died of its own accord in 1801, but it would rear its head again in 1918. During World War I, the 1917 Espionage Act sought to prevent interference with recruiting and the disclosure of information damaging to national defense by antiwar protesters. The Sedition Act again attempted to censor any criticism of the government or the Constitution.
Ideally, repression of speech would never happen. But words can hurt and sometimes do irreparable damage. From slanderous comments against individuals, to mutinous talk within the military, to seditious criticism of the government, words have the power to incite and inflame the passions of otherwise rational men, manipulated as unwitting agents of the malicious. The Supreme Court has supported restrictions on speech, particularly in times of war, when a "clear and present danger" exists. In Schenk v. United States, justice Oliver Wendell Holmes justified the arrest of Charles Schenk, general-secretary of the American Socialist Party, for his interference with military recruiting, stating, "When a nation is at war, many things that might be said in time of peace are such a hindrance to its effort that their utterance will not be endured so long as men fight and that no Court could regard them as protected by any constitutional right."2
U.S. law contains a host of statutory provisions against harmful speech, such as espionage, treason, and subversion, that pertain to all U.S. citizens. Military personnel face even greater restrictions. Among the Title 10 laws aimed specifically at limiting the speech of military personnel are: soliciting desertion, mutiny, sedition, or misbehavior before the enemy; contempt toward officials; disrespect toward a superior commissioned officer; insubordinate conduct toward a warrant officer, noncommissioned officer, or petty officer; and uttering disloyal statements. Words do not have to be spoken or written to run afoul of military censorship. Provoking gestures are a punishable offense under the Uniform Code of Military justice.
Unofficially, military personnel can face institutional retribution for opinions that are perfectly legal but contrary to "party line" views. This is not a new problem. In a 1921 Proceedings article, Naval Academy Professor William O. Stevens noted:
Of course criticism of the administration can hardly be encouraged, but let us have as much free speech for naval offices here as they have in England. Suppose an officer does give vent to a fool idea, it won't do any harm. he will get some wholesale criticism, you may be sure, either from newspapers or his colleagues, or both. Better that, than having him rise to a post of responsibility with that fool idea set like granite in his head. At all events we should never see again the spectacle of 1914, when Admiral Mahan himself was muzzled by executive order for fear he might hurt someone's feelings in Berlin.3
The perception persists that institutional retribution is alive and well in the Navy. Captain E. Tyler Wooldridge, a self-described victim for his july 1999 Proceedings article "A Tale of Two Cities," discusses as well the cases of Captain Pete Deutermann (for his expose of Aegis limitations) and Lawrence Di Rita (for his satire on military peacekeeping and social engineering) in his April 2000 Proceedings article, "You Can't Handle the Truth!"4
With so many restrictions on free speech and the potential to be branded as a heretic, one must question why anyone would consider going against the grain. After all, it is a matter of loyalty—or is it?
The Suction of Charybdis
Set and drift from misguided loyalty begins the moral descent into Charybdis. Every officer on commissioning swears allegiance to the Constitution-not to the President, senior officers, or service institutions. This was a deliberate decision by our founding fathers, who wanted to break from traditional military pledges of loyalty to generals and kings.5 Instead, the oath to the Constitution places a higher moral burden on the officer corps, sworn to the defense of high ideals, rather than imperfect men.
Military officers stray off course for seemingly ethical reasons without realizing it. Richard A. Gabriel, a former Army intelligence officer, says that silently accepting and following the policies of civilian leaders, under the auspices of civilian control of the military, when a military officer's own judgment screams otherwise, is a failure to "live up to his oath to serve the country." he believes modern-day officers acquiesce to civilian leaders too frequently in the interests of careerism. The resulting absence of dissent "provokes the worst type of disloyalty under the guise of loyalty, namely, a marked failure to question policies and orders that often do not work or that extract too high an ethical and moral price for their success."6
Incidences of officers putting their careers on the line to fight bad policy or perilous neglect are rare, but they do occur. Oftentimes they end a career; occasionally, they make one. At the turn of the 20th century, then-Lieutenant William Sowden Sims was appalled at the state of naval gunnery-a deficiency that could cost lives and mean the defeat of the U.S. fleet in battle. he wrote a number of reports critical of gunnery and the Navy shipbuilding bureaucracy while assigned to the USS Monterey (BM-6) on China Station. Meticulous in his research and expert in his knowledge of the superiority of European gunnery, Sims made specific recommendations for improvements in U.S. gunnery. Although both his captain and the Asiatic Fleet commander enthusiastically endorsed his reports, the bureaus in Washington flatly refuted his recommendations. Convinced the Navy bureaucracy could not be moved from below, Sims decided to risk it all in a letter direct to President Theodore Roosevelt. he began:
I beg that I may be pardoned for the liberty I take in addressing you a personal letter; and my only excuse for so doing is the vital importance of the subject that I wish to bring to your attention, namely, the extreme danger of the present very inefficient condition of the Navy, considered as a fighting force.
Sims gamble worked. The President backed him. Sims went on to become Inspector of Target Practice in the Bureau of Navigation, where he turned around naval gunnery.7
Another naval officer who put his career on the line for his convictions was Medal of Honor recipient Marine Brigadier General Merritt Red Mike" Edson. In the postwar drawdown, the Truman administration wanted to unify the services into a single department with three arms-air, land, and sea. The Marine Corps effectively would cease to exist. But Edson saw greater reason for concern: he equated unification with a single general staff-similar to the German military of World War II-which he felt would lead to militarism and dictatorship. he took his campaign to the Hill, the public, and powerful lobbying organizations in the face of express presidential decree prohibiting military opposition. When the President turned up the heat to the point that Navy leaders and the Marine Corps Commandant were muzzled, Red Mike remained as the lone military voice against unification.8
In May 1947, Edson was called to testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee, the only active-duty officer to do so. Prior to his testimony, Edson offered his resignation to the Commandant so that he could speak freely and avoid any appearance that he represented the views of the Marine Corps. The Commandant declined. The committee was decidedly antagonistic, but the last straw for Edson came when he was called to testify before the House Armed Services Committee, again as the lone active-duty officer. This time, Edson resigned. In the period leading up to his House testimony, he spoke passionately about the dangers of merger. The press made the connection to his resignation and noted, "here was a war hero ready to sacrifice his career to prevent an increase in the power of the military." Edson's testimony was well received. Six days later, secretary of the Navy James Forrestal unshackled the Navy gag order, allowing its officers, too, to voice their opposition. Sadly, Edson's career came to an end over the controversy, but as a result of his stand, no merger took place. The Navy maintained its air arm, and the Marine Corps survived-all would be vindicated in three years during the Korean War.9
It is a sad and dysfunctional thing for the Navy and Marine Corps when good men and women must gamble with their careers to do what is right for the nation. To lose them to Scylla for speaking out on matters that count deprives the nation of the very leaders it needs to navigate through treacherous times. It does not have to be that way.
A Safe Channel
A safe channel that allows open discussion and debate, without fear of retribution, is, of course, the best solution. In a commencement address to Whitman College on 25 May 2003, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. dredged that channel in terms of the Iraq war:
The role of dissent in the run-up to war is of course crucial. Of all the decisions a free people must face, the question of war and peace is the most solemn. Before sending young Americans to kill and die in foreign lands, a democracy has a sacred obligation to permit full and searching discussion of the issues at stake. There is no obligation to bow down before a reloaded imperial presidency. The views of the American people should indeed have equal weight with those of the fellow they send to the White House.
Nor does the actuality of war change the situation. As Theodore Roosevelt said in 1918 during the First World War, "To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public."
Since its inception in 1873, the Naval Institute has provided a forum for naval professionals to discuss and debate naval issues. Most of the early papers submitted were technical, befitting a navy caught in the throes of the Industrial Revolution. Amid this sea of change, the Naval Institute maintained its charter and still was able to look at itself introspectively. In a 1919 article, Rear Admiral Bradley Fiske described the organization's value:
Now, one of the functions of the Naval Institute is to present the problems of the navy in such a way as to make officers see how much variety and interest they possess, and how much pleasure can be secured by working on them. Without some stimulus as the Institute, the navy would be less like a profession and more like a trade. ... It is the embodiment of the thought of the navy. ... It looks ahead into the future, and back into the past, and keeps track of the happenings of the present. . . . [It] enables officers to look into the great beyond, and discuss and perhaps develop ideas of their own along American lines. ... By reason of its unofficial character, [it] enables them to get out of the rut of the actual sometimes, and soar among the glories of the possible.10
The fledgling Naval Institute struggled to attract members, let alone authors who would write on important naval matters. Most naval officers of the day were practical, viewing time away from the practice of gunnery, seamanship, and navigation as a waste. The organization also faced what Rear Admiral Fiske called "a curious shyness about writing articles for it." Fiske had met many officers with good suggestions on naval matters, but when he urged them to submit articles to the Naval Institute, they often replied, "But I can't write." Fiske disparaged this notion: "Now, any man who can think can write."11
In the wake of World War I, the Naval Institute be seeched its members to write on naval officers ' duty to educate and inform the public on naval matters. lieutenant Commander V. N. Bieg answered the call in the October 1919 Proceedings. he felt public ignorance of "the employment of the navy in war and peace; the fundamentals of strategy; the work of the fleet, its character and amount; its organization," etc., was so severe that it hurt both the Navy and the country. Although Bieg advocated expanding the scope of topics tackled by the Naval Institute, he also realized that "an exchange of ideas among the civil and military could not be held without occasional spats and ruffling of feathers on both sides."12
The spats came. In 1929, a war-weary American people, enamored with disarmament and the promises of pacifists, did not see the dark clouds of war on the horizon. In a controversial Proceedings article, retired Captain Dudley W. Knox took on "the most powerful propaganda organ in the country," the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America, which he saw as the principal architect of the defeat of the much-needed "Coolridge program for large new construction of cruisers and other auxiliaries."13 When the pacifists attacked, the Naval Institute struck back in a hard-hitting September 1929 Proceedings editorial:
The people of the country thought the navies of Great Britain, the United States, and Japan were to have a relative strength of 5-5-3. The few years that have intervened since the signing of the agreement have served to disillusion them and have verified the suspicions of the doubters.
And when the responsible naval officers, those responsible to the President and the people of the United States, focused attention on the fact that the other signatories were violating the spirit of the pact, and were indulging in a building spree that left the United States far in the rear, the people of the country promptly insisted that the spirit of the conference be lived up to. For doing their duty, these naval officers are called "naval experts" and "big-navy men"! They are biased! The country can thank God that they are biased enough to do their duty.
In the years that followed, the Naval Institute ebbed and flowed with the tides of controversy, sometimes leaning forward, other times succumbing to the pressures to conform with policy.
The Naval Institute still exists as an instrument of information and knowledge exchange. In its quest to remain relevant, however, the Institute recently challenged its readership with the issue of anonymous contributions to Proceedings, to shield military personnel from the dangers of Scylla and Charybdis.14 The debate that followed in Comment & Discussion letters was spirited, but many officers missed the mark in arguing against anonymity. In fact, it is a constitutional right upheld by the Supreme Court:
"Anonymous pamphlets, leaflets, brochures and even books have played an important role in the progress of mankind." . . . Great works of literature have frequently been produced by authors writing under assumed names. Despite readers' curiosity and the public's interest in identifying the creator of a work of art, an author generally is free to decide whether or not to disclose her true identity. The decision in favor of anonymity may be motivated by fear of economic or official retaliation, by concern about social ostracism, or merely by a desire to preserve as much of one's privacy as possible. Whatever the motivation may be, at least in the field of literary endeavor, the interest in having anonymous works enter the marketplace of ideas unquestionably outweighs any public interest in requiring disclosure as a condition of entry. Accordingly, an author's decision to remain anonymous, like other decisions concerning omissions or additions to the content of a publication, is an aspect of the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment.15
Anonymous contributions will help, but the Naval Institute can do better in marking the channel between Scylla and Charybdis. A clear set of rules of engagement-that address criminal speech violations such as slander, libel, and sedition-should be articulated in the writer's guidelines. This would provide navigation aids to naive but well-meaning military authors.16
Another measure would be to limit the number of articles written by flag officers and senior Defense officials. In 1970, this group authored about 9% of the articles published in Proceedings. In 1980, this number topped 11%; by 1990, it was 16%; and in 2000, it reached nearly 21%. Such a high percentage of articles from the senior ranks creates a perception that Proceedings is a mouthpiece for policy. In addition, no career-oriented junior officer in his right mind is going to enter into debate with an admiral or civilian equivalent.
The Naval Institute also should consider asking senior officers and officials to frame issues for debate (rather than lay out the party line), to challenge junior officers to research and discuss. This would avoid the mouthpiece perception, while encouraging junior and enlisted professionals to solve real and important issues to the Navy.
It is worth revisiting Captain G. V. Stewart's 1948 recommendation that the Naval Institute "place around the Board Room table a small plaque bearing this quotation" from Homer:
To speak his thoughts is every freeman's right
In peace and war, in counsel and in fight.
Perhaps we should add to this Homer's warning about Scylla and Charybdis.
1 Luther Baldwin was imprisoned for noting, "There goes the President and they are firing at his arse. I do not care if they fire thro' his arse."
2 The Constitutional Rights Foundation, America Responds to Terrorism, A "Clear and Present Danger," http://www.crf-usa.org/terror/clear_present.him.
3 William O. Stevens, "The Naval Officer and the Civilian," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, November 1921, p. 1733.
4 Capt. E. Tyler Wooldridge, USN, "You Can't Handle the Truth!" U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, April 2000, p. 67.
5 Kenneth Keskel, "The Oath of Office," Air and Space Power Journal, Winter 2002, at www.airpower.maxwcll.af.mil/airchronicles/apj/apj02/win02/keskel.html.
6 Richard A. Gabriel, To Serve with Honor (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1982), pp. 178, 203.
7 Elting E. Morison, Admiral Sims and the Modern American Navy (New York: Russell & Russell, 1968), pp. 77-154.
8 Jon Hoffman, "Truth without Fear," U.S. Naval institute Proceedings, May 1995, pp. 57-63.
9 Hoffman, "Truth without Fear," p. 61.
10 RAdm. Bradley A. Fiske, USN, "The United States Naval Institute," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, February 1919, pp. 197-200.
11 Fiske, "The United States Naval Institute," p. 199.
12 LCdr. V. N. Bieg, USN, "Responsibilities and Duties of Naval Officers of the United States in Educating and Informing the Public on Professional Matters," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, October 1919, pp. 1751-57.
13 Capt. Dudley W. Knox, USN (Ret.) "The Navy and Public Indoctrination," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, june 1929, pp. 479-90.
14 Tom Marfiak, "Publisher's Page," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, February 2003, p. 8
15 Supreme Court of the United States, Mclntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission, Certiorari to the Supreme Court of Ohio, No. 93-986. Argued 12 October 1994; decided 19 April 11995.
16 For example, the two Marine Corps officers, Majors Rabil and Sellers, who engaged in contemptible language against then-President Bill Clinton, a violation of Article 88 of the Uniform code of Military justice.
Captain Bowdish is a surface warfare officer assigned to the faculty of the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, Quantico, Virginia.